Retiring leader of Luton homeless charity NOAH has earned a 'special place in the history of Bedfordshire'

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His 20-year tenure at the helm of NOAH has held so many highlights that chief executive Jim O’Connor MBE is struggling to pinpoint one.

The former railways financial director who has recently retired muses: “Maybe it was meeting Sister Eileen O’Mahoney who founded the charity. She was a tall, dynamic and powerful woman who persuaded me that my future lay with helping the homeless.

“And her deputy, Sister Antoinette – diminutive, but with a character, compassion and intelligence of pure gold.”

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Then his thoughts turn to all those others whose stories have been golden threads through NOAH’S rich tapestry. He recalls: “There was Aemon, who at 60 recovered from a life lived in chaos. He became an ambassador for us and went to the House of Commons in 2008 to collect our award as Day Centre of the Year.

Jim O'ConnorJim O'Connor
Jim O'Connor | ugc

“He also renewed his wedding vows with the wife he hadn’t seen for 35 years and spent his last five years a very happy and contented man.

“Then there was the young Muslim who came to the door one day in Ramadan with two shopping bags full of fresh chicken – his contribution to the poor.

“And the 150 people who responded 14 years ago to our request for volunteers to run our evening soup kitchen. It’s been a huge success ever since.”

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Jim took over the reins at a time when NOAH was facing serious financial difficulties.

Under his leadership, it not only became financially stable but also expanded to provide a comprehensive range of services including welfare and training, accommodation projects and shops offering everything from white goods to clothing and furniture.

The number of staff has grown from 15 to 60, with turnover increasing tenfold.

Jim believes one of the positives was the partnership cemented over the years with the government and Luton and Central Bedfordshire councils. At one stage Luton was the third highest in the peak of homelessness outside London. But this has been reduced to the point where even in the midst of this pandemic there is no-one needing to sleep rough.

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One of his dearest wishes is that our current experience will change how we live as a society: “And that homelessness will become entirely unacceptable.”

Jim adds: “I leave in the knowledge that it was the right time to bring in someone with the energy, dynamism and commitment to take NOAH to the next stage. That man is David Morris, who was formerly manager of global business operations for Discovery Communications Ink. He has also worked for the Alzheimer’s Society and a London homeless project.”

In 2015 Jim was awarded an MBE for his services to the homeless in Luton and Bedfordshire.

Lord Lieutenant Helen Nellis says: “Jim will enjoy a special place in the history of Bedfordshire, known as a man of integrity, kindness, effectiveness and tenacity who changed the lives of many living with homelessness.

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“He always demonstrated that when faith and strong values underpin a leader’s vision and mission, anything can be achieved.

“He treated every person he met with dignity and as a result he has our deep affection and respect always.”